Old churches give up and sell out

SEATTLE – A Seattle developer is buying the site of the First United Methodist Church downtown, a distinctive domed building that has stood for nearly a century and now is dwarfed by skyscrapers.

Historic preservation advocates had hoped to save the 1907 brick and terra-cotta building and its stained-glass windows from demolition.

Tacoma also is losing its venerable First United Methodist Church building, where a dwindling congregation decided Sunday after a wrenching three-hour debate that they could not afford to keep it. That vintage church is surrounded by Tacoma General Hospital and other health care facilities. The property is being bought for $6 million by Multicare Health System to expand its emergency departments.

The cost of repairs and upkeep were key factors in the decisions by both congregations to sell. The Tacoma church, for example, needs a new roof, furnace and earthquake retrofitting.

“I love this building,” Brenda Lopez said. “Where is the money going to come from to do these repairs?”

“I think it’s the most responsible thing we can do,” said Susan Dobkins after casting her vote Sunday, when the congregation approved the sale 36-13. “It’s very painful. It’s the time to do it.”

Historic churches in dense urban areas around the country face similar dilemmas.

“They are sitting on gold mines,” said Seattle City Council member Peter Steinbrueck, who had hoped to save the Seattle church. “The temptation to sell is huge.”

The congregation of the Seattle church is taking skyscraper developer Martin Selig up on his offer of a swap for a site in Belltown, the booming residential and retail area at the north end of downtown. A vacant one-story building is there now. Details of the deal were not disclosed.

The congregation plans to build a new church with underground parking and space to continue its ministry of serving the homeless.

The old church is to be demolished before the site is turned over to Selig. The permit for the property allows construction of a 33-story office tower, though Selig has not confirmed his plans.

The congregation supports the sale, though the site is “steeped in all kinds of memories,” said Dave McNeal, co-chairman of the church’s building advisory board. “It doesn’t mean we will just glibly walk out the door by any stretch of the imagination.”

Friends of First United Methodist Church, a historic preservation group that organized two years ago to save the Seattle building, lost the legal battle last fall. The state Court of Appeals upheld an earlier decision that the church can’t be barred from demolishing the building due to landmark preservation concerns.

“It is unfortunate that Martin Selig came into the picture,” said Jennifer Emerson, head of the preservation group. “He has no intention of saving the building. That was clear when we met with him.”

The church backs up against the landmark Rainier Club, and together, the two low-lying buildings provide an oasis of sorts among the downtown high-rises.

“There is a public good in having historic and beautiful buildings downtown,” Emerson said. “It is good to have skyscrapers, but you also need some touchstones to the past to make it interesting and distinctive.”

The Rev. Kathlyn James, minister at the Seattle church, said she sympathizes.

“This is a chance for our survival and to continue our ministry downtown. We can’t see a future for us in the current location,” she said.

Lack of parking is a problem at the old site. So are maintenance costs – including $350,000 to repair damage from the 2001 Nisqually Quake.

The new location has exciting possibilities, James said.

“It will be wonderful to be in a vibrant neighborhood instead of a commercial district. We can continue our work with the homeless and our feeding program. We want to include a shelter in our new building.”

Mike Hassenger at Seneca Real Estate Group, which is representing the church, said construction of the new church in Belltown could begin by the middle of next year.

Seattle nominated the church for landmark status in the 1980s. The move sparked a 10-year legal battle with the church, which did not want such status for its building.

In 1996, the state Supreme Court sided with the congregation, concluding that a landmark designation would violate its constitutional right to free exercise of religion.

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